A picture of the infamous Elk, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / S.MiRK
There’s no real need to rehash how difficult and weird 2020 was; we were all there for it. But in order to tell this story, the events behind this particular upheaval might require some context and background.
To set the scene: It’s May of 2020 and Portland (along with several other cities across the country) is protesting the murder of George Floyd by ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Each night, demonstrators rally around a very specific statue across the street from the Multnomah County Justice Center: Lovingly known as the “elk statue” or “Elk,” which made an appearance in director Gus Van Sant’s film “My Own Private Idaho.” Signs are placed and candles and fires are lit at the base of the 120-year-old statue declaring “Black Lives Matter.”
What happened next: And then, just like that, Elk disappeared from its post. Theories began to swirl that it had been destroyed during the protests, but these were quickly squashed by local writer Brian Libby (a longtime fan of the statue) who visited Elk in a hidden location where it was being cared for and restored by the Regional Arts and Culture Council.
Libby wanted to make it abundantly clear that any damage to the statue appeared to be accidental and unintentional, and hearkened back to Elk’s legacy as a gathering place for all groups over the years — including being washed and scrubbed by local fraternity pledges in the late 1950s.
Some backstory: Elk was met with a fair bit of backlash when it was originally placed in 1900. Its placement created a wonky roundabout that slowed motorists down, the local chapter of the Elks Club refused to take part in its dedication, and folks of the era disliked its style.
Perhaps it’s because artist Roland Hinton Perry was known for exaggerating nature for dramatic effect, which meant that Elk doesn’t really resemble any current species of elk and is instead an exaggerated version of the blueprint.
Back to current times: Regardless, after Elk was removed, protesters constructed a new statue — this one was made from metal and much more skeletal looking (complete with teeth). Supporters of Portland’s antifascist organizations said the replacement elk statue was erected as a “memorial to Black victims of police violence.”
And then in the fall of 2020 (like its predecessor), the “Nightmare Elk” vanished, but not as a result of an arts organization trying to preserve it: The far-right extremist group Patriot Prayer loaded up the creation onto the bed of a truck and stole it.
It only took about 24 hours for a second Nightmare Elk to take the former’s place — a Twitter account that goes by “Food Coordinator Elk” helped rally folks together to construct this second iteration, this time made of plywood and tarp, with its antlers adorned with glow sticks.
What exactly became of this third version of Elk isn’t completely clear (at least from what your editor was able to dig up online), but at some point, it too disappeared. Nowadays the base remains empty, waiting for the return of the original Elk.
What’s next: Sadly, we likely won’t see Elk back home until at least next summer, according to Portland’s Arts Program Manager Jeff Hawthorne, and it may be in a different location this time.
In spite of all of this, Elk continues to be a symbol and source of Portland solidarity — and the desire to forge ahead with new ideas and creativity no matter what the critics say.
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